I commented on a blog post by the wonderful Drew Jacob yesterday. I would first like to apologise publicly for my tone, and for not communicating clearly. (Well, publicly meaning ‘in front of my three readers’.) I should not have taken my anger out on Drew, who is awesome, and incredibly committed to his religion and to the Celtic/Gaelic reconstructionist community that he serves as a priest. And whose projects I’m in awe of and have tried to support, including his 8000-mile walk from North to South America and his Magic to the People project. And I’m sure I’m one of those people who have missed his point. But to deny that his post upset me would be a lie, and it would show a lack of integrity on my part. So let me try to explain.
I understand Drew’s desire to wear black, instead of green, on a holiday for a man who is mythically renowned for defeating druids and forcing people to convert. Even though these legends are far more fantasy than fact, Drew objects to the celebration of someone whose stories are about destroying the old gods (as far as I understand it). This is at least a more rational reason to boycott St Patrick’s Day than the concept of ‘All Snakes’ Day’, which riffs off the name of a holy Christian celebration of the ancestors, and uses the misinterpretation of the myth that St Patrck drove all the snakes from Ireland as its icon. (As I’m sure most people reading this know, the snakes were never a symbol for pagans in the myth, and there was never an invasion of Ireland by evil Christians who drove the pagans away. They were all the *same* people.) I don’t object to these things for interfaith reasons. I’m an active supporter of the interfaith movement, but I don’t much care what Christians think of the holidays I celebrate, or don’t (just as I’m not that interested in Christian holidays anymore). This is a different debate from the ‘Christians stole our holidays’ nonsense (which irritates me for very different reasons, but that’s for another post). This is about the Irish community, at home and in diaspora. Neither am I saying that Irish/Celtic Pagans ‘should’ celebrate St Patrick’s Day. I personally don’t! I don’t object to people boycotting holidays as their conscience leads them. I object to *some* of the attitudes behind some of these boycotts. I don’t object to Drew’s boycott, specifically. It must be highly irritating to be a Celtic polytheist and see people around you celebrating a villain of your mythic paradigm. But I was accused of shaming those who refuse to celebrate it, and that was *not* what I meant. I don’t care who doesn’t celebrate it, and I have no interest in celebrating the saint in question myself. So here’s my attempt to explain more clearly. The attempt may fail, as this is a visceral and largely irrational reaction. But I’m trying to work out what’s behind it, for my benefit more than for anyone else’s.
If the concept of wearing black on St Patrick’s Day, or mocking it as ‘All Snakes’ Day’, is upsetting to me, it’s because there is a context. It hurts me to see Irish culture mocked, especially by Gaelic/Celtic Pagans and polytheists. It hurts me because I grew up in England in the 1980s, when there were ways that the Irish were treated that – thank the gods – you mostly don’t see anymore. It was a time when Irish-English relations were not good, and very complicated. It wasn’t quite the time when signs like ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ were around – but they were also only a relatively recent memory to the Irish community. I grew up at a time and in a place where, if you had an Irish accent on a train or a plane, you were treated like a terrorist. I grew up when, on hearing that I had Irish heritage, people said “Are any of your family in the IRA?” I grew up at a time and in a place where, when my mother spoke with an English accent in a pub in Dublin, she and my father nearly got beaten up (somewhat ironically – she was arguing with a man that she was Irish, not English – as indeed she is). I grew up being asked if there were ‘gypsies’ in my family. I grew up being mocked for coming from a poor country where people are idiots. You don’t hear the racist jokes as much as you used to, and the fear of the IRA is gone now, and by the time I was a teenager, most of this had ended. But I remember.
And I am *not* accusing Drew Jacob, an honourable man who I respect deeply, of racism. He is committed to his heritage, his religion and his people, and I should have been more respectful of that when I replied to his post. But I am asking all American Pagans (and I do see it almost exclusively from Americans) to be aware that, if they were lucky enough to grow up in a land where their Irish heritage was valued and sometimes even romanticised, it wasn’t always like that for the Irish community around the world. Including in recent memory. And maybe to have a little bit of sensitivity. The way you see St Patrick’s Day in America is *not* the only way it is seen and celebrate around the world. The culture romanticised by many Celtic Pagans (a lot of Americans, and some Brits these days) is a struggling one. Ireland is currently struggling to keep her language and culture alive. Her people are suffering from economic difficulties – when I last went back to see my cousins, last summer, most of them were jobless and very angry at the rest of Europe (and the politicians who persuaded them that the Euro was the answer to all their problems). It’s also a very beautiful, very hospitable, and very Catholic country. If you’re a Celtic Pagan and you’ve never been to Ireland, it’s really important to go, and to see the statues of Mary on every corner of the road (I leave her an offering at least once each visit, as the most highly-honoured spirit in Ireland) and hear the people talk about how closely religion and culture are linked there – despite the recent, serious decline in numbers of active church-goers. There are St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin, but in my experience, a lot of the rest of the country doesn’t do much for it. In my opinion, the holiday that many Pagans are protesting today is far, far more American than it is Irish. I’m not keen to see it being exported back around the world, including here, which is one more good reason why I’m not going out drinking tonight. There weren’t St Paddy’s Day parades here when I was growing up – at least, not that I can remember. Just questions about whether you were a ‘gypsy’ or an IRA supporter.
I don’t really celebrate St Paddy’s Day – certainly not by getting drunk. I find the Americanized version of the holiday a little crass. Associating drunkenness with the Irish is a stereotype that goes back to the Romans, and it’s not very interesting. (Also, I live in Britain, where we don’t need an excuse to get drunk.) But I may pour out some Guinness to the old gods of Ireland today, since Ireland is on my mind, thanks to this discussion. I’m far more interested in how Ireland is currently doing in the Six Nations rugby tournament. (Not well. When they last won, *that* was a good excuse for celebrating Ireland in my house. The wife, who is Irish by nationality, is a little bit rugby-obsessed.)
I doubt this incoherent post has helped explain my position much further. But I hope it’s given a bit of a snapshot into the experience of having Irish heritage in the UK, and how different it is from America. And I hope I’ve at least vaguely shown that I don’t celebrate or care about the holiday, and I certainly don’t think all Irish/Celtic Pagans ‘should’ be celebrating this holiday. That is an assumption based on an American worldview which not all of us share. But there *are* more reasons to be offended by some Pagans’ reactions to this holiday than just having Christian sympathies. As it happens, I do have some of those. But most of the people celebrating this festival are not practising Christians (the Egyptians, for example, who are lighting the pyramids up in green tonight – and the now-non-religious majority in these islands). I care much more about how I honour living Irish culture than I do about Christianity. I don’t care if you do or don’t celebrate this day (although I’d prefer it if you didn’t represent Irish culture through drinking and stereotypes), but I do care about how modern Irish culture is treated and respected by those of us who follow the old gods. Again, I should not have lumped Drew in with those who disrespect living Gaelic culture. This is a ‘trigger’ issue for me – but I should respond to it carefully and respectfully nonetheless.
So whatever you do or don’t do tonight, if you call yourself a Celtic or Gaelic Pagan or polytheist, think about the Irish reality behind American holidays, and don’t assume the way they’re celebrated in the US is the only way they’re seen around the world.
(Sorry about typos. I’m on my tablet computer, on a train.)